The scale of the grand old Assembly Rooms Music Hall threatens to swamp Kae Tempest’s performance. The elegantly-corniced roof is high, the space cavernous, and Tempest has just one musician alongside them, triggering electronic patterns. Looming overhead is an elegant, decorative tree, apparently made of rope, lit alternately in spring-like green and brown, wintery white, or moody, nocturnal purple.
Tempest appears small and relatively alone, and the main – the only – weapons they have to fight back and fill the space are their words. It was always the way, ever since their Mercury Prize-nominated 2014 album Everybody Down announced the Londoner as a significant music artist, as well as an award-winning poet. Now, three albums later, this month’s The Line is a Curve is another clear-eyed but defiantly personal response to our troubled times.
The performance’s first half is the new album in its entirety, swinging from No Prizes’ sense of determination to face the future and not dwell in the past, to Smoking’s spirit of recovery from past trauma (“there can’t be healing until it’s all broken”). The songs are rich and reflective, maybe best suited to hearing alone. Yet the tension which builds to claustrophobic levels with the punchy, rap-timed Move and the jittery More Pressure, and breaks like a wave with the closing Grace, finally rewards the communal experience.
The new album is Tempest’s first work since they changed their name and came out as non-binary, and there’s a sense of self-reflexive dialogue throughout. The mid-point of the set came with the long-form poem Brand New Ancients, a real bravura moment, then the second half moved through in the external, political concerns of Tempest’s earlier work, through Europe is Lost, Ketamine for Breakfast, the surging, claustrophobic Unholy Elixir and the redemptive, cleansing finale People’s Faces. No-one goes to a Kae Tempest gig to raise a smile, but the sense of uplift is still palpable.